First Things First

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A Quick Glimpse in the Rear View

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Imagine a 10-year-old, the youngest in a family of three boys, who inherited threadbare baseballs and raggedy mitts and smooth, under-inflated footballs like the sorrowful, unexciting toys they were. Here kid, have fun. I preferred climbing trees, racing through the meadows and scrambling up quarry walls, only to jump into the blue water far below. Batter up, balls and strikes and touchdowns were not for me.

Now the guy down the street, the big guy who built the tree house for his kid, he lifted weights in his garage after work. I heard him clanging around and saw him lift the bar over his head. Wow! Strong, and he had muscles. He likes it, I can tell. He’d wave when I went by on my bike.

I bought a bar and a small pile weights from a neighbor for five bucks that summer just after school got out.

My dad and brothers looked down and nodded as I eagerly slid finger-smashing plates on and off the bar and practiced tightening the red collars with my nifty wrench. Oomph! This was for me. No one on first, no one in the end zone, no swing, miss and you’re out. Just me and my muscles wherever I went.

First there was the basement in Secaucus, and, then the garage; the Y in Newark, the Vic Tanny’s in Jersey City, the Health Club in Hackensack and Weider’s shipping room in Union City before the Muscle Beach Gym we called the Dungeon in Santa Monica in the Spring of ’63.

The Dungeon, the creepy basement of a very old hotel, was comprised of the equipment that once withstood and delighted in the sun and salt air of the famous Muscle Beach four blocks west on the Pacific’s edge. It was a dark and dreary subterranean reminder of dazzling and wonderful years gone by. You’d think something beautiful and bountiful was struck down and punished for its audacious freshness and strength. In ’63, the gym was five years old. I was 21.

Force open the forced-shut door, one of two 10-foot aging guardians, trump down two flights of stairs and there it was in all its splendor, the Muscle Beach Gym. That is, if you could see the place. It was 75 feet wide and a hundred feet long, and had two strategically placed 50-watt light bulbs to prevent us from stumbling over the symmetrical arrangement of benches, racks, barbells and dumbbells and pulley apparatus.

There was a water fountain in the far corner and a john in the other far corner, and both worked when you needed them. Much of the light (not much) came from two skylights of glass blocks built into the sidewalk of Broadway Avenue above the south wall.

The equipment was handmade by hunky weightlifters, not craftsmen. Lumber from construction sites was slammed together by approximating eyeballs  and big hammers and nails. Stout pipes held the iron plates and were wildly welded in place to serve as dumbbells from 15 to 150 pounds. Pulleys were free-hanging, six-inch contrivances with ample lengths of cable to hoist any weight at the command of the lifter.

Oddly, the underground arena didn’t have a foul smell and it maintained the same agreeable temperature year round. A few 12x12 tiles remained on the concrete floor, paint had long faded, was peeling or exposed crumbling plaster. One mirror hung, a tarnished, unframed 4x5-foot chip of glass, which seemed too old and too tired to reflect an image. Why it remained the years I was there is a mystery. We had to peer, squint and study its content and, alas, give up as nothing recognizable was offered.

Never more than 10 guys in the gym any one time, only one woman I can recall. The scene I just described is pitiful, but it tells of the best gym I ever trained in. These were the moments before the first seismic shift took place.

Next stop was Joe Gold’s. The concrete was still wet, must have been spring or fall of 1966. Coincidentally, as Joe was building his famous Gold’s gym, the Dungeon was shutting down and moving to a storefront across the street. The hotel was slated for demolition. They put up a parking lot.

Joe and his long-time buds, including Zabo Kozewski, did much of the construction. The gym was as simple as a structure could be, an approximately 50’x100’x20’ rectangle made of cinder blocks and a wood roof. Open the front door and look out and there was Main Street, a block from the ocean. Inside were all the appropriate and perfect bars and dumbbells to sooth and develop a musclehead’s body, mind and soul. Thick-handled and pristine, solid and bold, clean, visible, handy. And look! Large and polished mirrors on every wall.

The benches were made of rugged steel, designed and constructed by Joe in his garage at the end of a cul-de-sac a mile away. The pulleys were oversized for smooth sailing and mounted on oversized frameworks for multiple purposes. Everything had its space; just enough, not too much. Light zoomed in from skylights and front windows by day and fluorescents by night. Showers and a restroom were in the back, above the teensy parking area. Sweet.

The arena was set for building muscle and might, and the atmosphere and attitude followed. There were no greats walking the floor and no hotshots greedily consuming the mirrors. Guys and a few gals pushed the iron with basic purity, hard work and mature passion. Joe Gold was a very good man and always the adult in the room. Neither jerks nor loudmouths were allowed, thus respectable behavior was integrated.

There was quiet before the storm.



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